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Pranayama is the control of the breath so that it may tune the body, calm the mind, and ultimately be used as a route to deeper levels of consciousness. Prana means many things in Sanskirt – it is not just the word for breath, but a life force, cosmic energy, air, and strength.
Our breath is ultimately linked with our state of mind. It is our life force. It gets shorter when we panic, higher up in the chest when we are stressed, becomes even and quiet when we are calm and serene.
“The breath is the intelligence of the body.”T. K. V. Desikachar
Functions of Pranayama
What distinguishes ordinary shallow breathing from deep abdominal breathing is the role played by the diaphragm. As you inhale, the diaphragm contracts, reducing the pressure in your thorax as it draws air into the lungs. As you breathe out, the diaphragm relaxes and moves back up into its original position in your chest. This reduces the available space in the thorax and expels air from the lungs.
Most of us are shallow chest-breathers rather than deep abdominal breathers. When the diaphragm is properly engaged in breathing, it acts like a pump that stimulates the whole body.
Pranayama can be broken down into three functions: inhalation, exhalation, and retention.
- Inhalation enlarges the chest cavity and fills the lungs with fresh air
- When we hold our breath (retention) we increase the carbon-dioxide in our blood, which raises the internal temperature, and plays an important role in increasing the absorption of oxygen.
- During exhalation, the diaphragm returns to its original position and all of our stale air is pushed out from the body.
You can help to engage your diaphragm by drawing in your stomach muscles as you breathe out. At the end of each exhalation, when your diaphragm relaxes, your spine will lengthen. When practicing, it may help to think of something calm like ocean waves or a peaceful sunrise.
Correct posture is also important. Make sure you are sitting up straight and your pelvis isn’t tilted either back or forward. Shoulders should be relaxed and your chin should be tucked in. Try it. Try it some more. Then, try it again.
It’s okay to teach yourself a few basic principles of deep breathing but all other pranayama exercises should be learned from a qualified teacher.
- Ujayii – Simple Deep Breathing – Usually done either lying on your back with your knees bent or sitting, it is a slow rhythmical inhalation and exhalation without effort.
- Kapalabhati – Cleansing Breath – A Kapalabhati breath may clear the nasal passages and eliminate gas from the stomach. It is a sharp concentration of the abdominal muscles and forces stale air out through the nostrils followed by the immediate relaxation of the abdominal muscles, drawing fresh air in.
- Nadhi sodhana – Alternative nostril breathing. This is a relaxed, channel – cleansing breath that is used to help calm the nervous system and aid in a restful night’s sleep. This breath increases the amount of oxygen taken into the body. It may also purify the blood, calm the mind, reduce stress, and promote concentration.
Our breathing is so routine that it’s not something that we can change either by force of will or with any predetermined speed. Sometimes the harder you try, the more difficult it becomes. We can only change our breath by being mindful of it and by watching it. Also, don’t expect the same from your breathing every day. Your breath is often affected by how you are feeling.